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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Geoffrey Woodcox's blog

Collecting the Everyday: The Most Important Thing You Probably Don’t Know We Do

When you think of a museum collection, what types of artifacts do you think of? Maybe dinosaur bones, antique cars, or a World War II uniform? Something old, maybe even ancient. While collecting from the past is an essential part of the Museum Division’s function, what is just as important is collecting from the present.

Most people don’t know that we actively collect from today’s world, and the typical reaction when they find out is, “Why would you want that?” To many, modern items often seem too insignificant to belong in a museum. However, the purpose of the Museum Division’s collection is to preserve a three-dimensional historical record of life in North Dakota. What do these everyday items say about our values, our technology, and our society? What common stories are captured and preserved from our lives? What will they tell researchers about us in 100 years? 1,000? After all, what is now old and distinctive was once a part of everyday life.

Take a look at five artifacts that we have collected from our contemporary world. Do you have anything from your life that can add to North Dakota’s story?

1. Car Seat (2016.43.1)

Cow pattern car seat

Used by the donor for nine months of 2015, the car seat was a hand-me-down from a friend whose son had grown out of it. Some distinctive things about the artifact include an expiration date, which is a relatively new safety feature. We also know that the print on the seat cover is called Cow-Moo-Flage, which amuses me to no end. Would we have captured those stories had we collected the item 100 years from now? We likely would not have, and it adds a human dimension to the artifact. The advances in technology also say something to me about how much we, as a society, value our kids!

2. Apple iBook G3 Laptop (2016.22.1)

Apple iBook G3 laptop in orange and white

Like many of our more recent artifacts, the laptop came from our State Historical Society staff. It was purchased through a grant in 1999 for $1,599 (nearly $2,500 in 2018 dollars) so the agency could build a website to “take advantage of the public’s growing use of the internet.” Sporting 64 MB of ram and a 6 GB hard drive, its specifications make it practically unusable by today’s standards. It not only demonstrates the advances computers continue to make, but with its distinctive exterior, shows late 1990s fashion. It also documents efforts to adapt to a major shift in society: the proliferation and use of the Internet.

3. Cereal Box (1985.46.4)

Cheerios cereal box

We have a large collection of food containers. It’s something that typically gets thrown out or recycled, so why would a museum want it? How much of our time and money do we spend either preparing or purchasing food? And do you really understand a culture if you don’t understand how and what they eat? This cereal was purchased for the donor’s young children in 1985. How many of us as kids spent a Saturday morning eating a bowl of cereal while watching cartoons? It’s a common childhood story that is captured when we preserve this artifact.

4. Samsung Galaxy S4 Smartphone (2016.41.1)

Samsung Galaxy S4 cell phone

How can you talk about 21st century life without acknowledging the monumental shift brought about by smartphones? We have mobile phones in the collection running as far back as a 1980s car phone. In addition to the stories collected with each donation, each reflects changing technologies and the transition to the all-purpose devices we carry around today.

5. Selfie Stick (number not yet assigned)

Selfie stick

Part of the rise of smartphones is all the accessories that come along with them. Though selfie sticks have been around in one form or another for decades, they became a popular smartphone accessory within the last few years.
Do you have something from your life that would add to North Dakota’s story? Send in a potential donation questionnaire on our website.

Strange Things Found: Five Unusual Artifacts in the Collection of the North Dakota State Historical Society

I am one of the fortunate people who get to work with and protect some of the treasures of our state. As it turns out, a few of those treasures are a little unusual. The State Historical Society began formal collecting efforts in the early 1900s. In the intervening century, what is now the Museum Division has assembled a collection of a little over 74,000 artifacts (this does not include the holdings of our other collecting divisions). With a collection of that size I still find things that surprise me, even after four years of working here.
 

1. Patsy the Calf (2010.52.1)

Patsy the Calf

Born on a farm in the Williston area, Patsy is a unique calf. If you look closely at her chest, you’ll see a twin that never separated while she was in the womb, leaving a mouth and undeveloped eyes under her neck and a large bulge on her rib cage. She was calved in April1976 and lived until June of that year before dying of pneumonia. Upon her death, the family decided to have her remains preserved by a taxidermist. Twenty-four years later, in 2010, she was donated to the State Historical Society. Keeping Patsy’s remains preserves an unusual part of farm life in an agricultural state.
 

2. Buffalo Hide Chair (13346)

Buffalo Hide Chair

We have many pieces of furniture in the collection that are upholstered in buffalo hide, invariably with horns used for components such as the bottoms of chair legs, armrests, and back supports. Horn furniture was popular and stylish in the late 19th century, though most mass- produced pieces were made with cow, rather than buffalo parts. To modern eyes, including my own, the look of horn furniture can be somewhat…unsettling…to say the least, and that’s why I included it on the list. We believe it was produced in the 1880s in Kidder County. With the prevalence of buffalo in North Dakota’s natural history, our collection of horn furniture is a very North Dakotan twist on a popular fad.
 

3. Novelty Coffee Pot (1994.12.1)

Novelty Coffee Pot

Some items just make you scratch your head, and this is one of them. All we know about the coffee pot is that it was given to the mayor of Pembina, North Dakota, around 1900. Glued to the side are rifle cartridges, dice, seashells, pocket watches, and military buttons. The list could go on. All of this was given a thick coat of gold paint. Who did this and why did they do it? The world may never know.
 

4. Shackles (1982.48.8)

Shackles

Some of our unusual items are not unusual because of what they are, but because of the story associated with them. These shackles were used to restrain a horse thief known as “Club Foot” Wilson, who had stolen two mares in Mercer County, Dakota Territory, in 1884. At the time, there was a vote to decide the county seat, with a choice between the towns of Causey and Stanton. Realizing the race was tight, local officials offered to set Wilson free in return for his voting for Stanton, which he of course did. According to the donor, Stanton won by one vote, though the records I have at my disposal do not confirm that. By keeping this item, we preserve an unusual story about justice in Dakota Territory.
 

5. A Pioneer Murder Weapon (10895)

Model 1842 Springfield Musket

In February 1897, eight members of the Spicer family were brutally murdered in rural Emmons County. While there are conflicting accounts regarding motive, Thomas Spicer, head of the family, was shot and killed with the Model 1842 Springfield musket pictured above, while working in a cow shed. The remaining members of his family, including five other adults and two babies, were killed with other weapons. Five men were arrested in connection with the murders and though all were initially sentenced to death, two eventually went free for lack of evidence. It is unlikely that we would even be offered an item like this in 2017. Preserving it however, tells a story about the dangers of pioneer life.